Tattooing , like much else in the west, started as a primarily male area of endeavor. Women who got tattooed were viewed askance and the even smaller number of women tattooers (I think that at any given time from 1900 to the 1970 you could count the number of North American woman tattooers on one hand) were treated as exotic (or even erotic) freak show curiosities.
Even in my own relatively short tattooing career I have noticed a marked difference in the number of female tattooers and also some changed attitudes. When I began tattooing in the mid 1990 many of my male co-workers felt that they were being complimentary when they would say “Yea, she’s a pretty good tattooer for a girl” or ” she’s pretty good, her tattoos don’t look all girly”. We have come a long way, baby.
In a little more than a decade women have gone from a marginal curiosity in tattooing to being a fair percentage of the art form (though nowhere near the 51% of the population of tattooers, if I had to guess I would say 15 to 25%) In part this is due to the increasing ‘normalcy’ of tattooing and the decline of the bullshit tough guy image that tattooers needed to carry when both they and their clientele were seedier than the average Joe. Also the exposure of some of the highly talented woman tattooers like Kat von D, Hannah Atchison, Kim Saigh, Michele Myles and others on tattoo television shows has given lie to the myth of women as somehow tattooing “differently’ or “more girly” than male tattooers. One nice thing about tattooing these days is that What you do has become more important than who (or what) you are in most cases.
Which brings me to the Philadelphia convention Cara and I just worked last week. I was surprised and gratified when I looked over the artist list and saw a good chunk of the talent working the convention were women. It makes quite a change from the first convention i ever worked in 2002 which had a grand total of 1 woman tattooing out of a room of 120 tattooers. The people are serious artists whose work stands with and often surpasses the work of the guys attending the show, and they bring a much-needed sense of reality to a world often inflated with tough guy testosterone false blue-collar posturing.
The problem with the Philly show, however, was that it was positively lousy with the kind of shithead east coast thug act morons who see women as nothing but elbow-candy and are threatened by any sign that a woman isn’t content to just be subservient and look pretty. At one point a giant booth directly across from us set up PA speakers and began blasting awful jersey-shore music and yelling through a microphone for girls to “show yer tits fer a t-shirt”. Over and over, for an hour. Apparently in years past this sort of thing had netted them a lot of women showing their racks and the sausage party crowd that appeared looked hungry for more of this kind of action and a couple very sad, very drunk women did step up and . . .uh. . . earn a free t-shirt. What was so goddamn funny was that after these two sad sacks were dismissed by the MC when he said “Ah I feel like I seen dem tits enough already.” No one else stepped up. A couple of tough looking Philly ladies even yelled “Why dontcha show yer dicks!!?” at them! The music was blasting, the MC was cajoling women with the patent lie “Fer every pair o tits we’re givin money for cancer reasearch and shit!”, the crowd of guys was a desperate mix of half-tards wearing “Austin 3:16” shirts and roided out muscleheads looked around desperately for the next low-self esteem girl to debase and nothing happened. Then it kept not happening. It got funny, families with kids (yes they kept yelling for “tits” when they families walked past) squeezed by the crowd, people got tattooed and basically despite the terrible din they were making the rest of the convention did its best to ignore them. Eventually the meatheads gave up and went back to blasting the same few Biggie Smalls tracks over and over while pounding booze out of plastic bottles.
So it was funny that at a hugely crowded convention that these guys got shot down but all I could think of was the fact that on the left of us was a booth of friends of ours staffed by 2 female tattooers, to our right was a booth run by an entirely female owned and staffed shop and in our booth my wife Cara was diligently turning out quality work in a difficult environment. What were the people who put on this convention saying to these people when they let bullshit like that go on? What were the women who had to push through a crowd of horny morons supposed to think of a tattoo convention after this? What was my wife and friends who were as talented as any male tattooer supposed to think about this? That despite all their hard work and dedication that they were still worth just a pair of tits? It was stupid and noisy and degrading and it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.
We ended up having a great time with our friends in philly and were busy, I got my own leg tattooed by the very talented Dana Helmuth, over all it was a really fun trip but I can tell you this, I will never work that show again. We have worked hard for decades to bring tattooing out of the gutter and I can’t support letting it get dragged back in the mud.